Bilbao—Cudillero day 1

Wednesday 19 June 2013

There are some for whom paradise is an endless, flat expanse of white sand by clear, warm, aquamarine waters caressed by overhanging palm trees; there is but a whisper of a breeze, and there are no waves to speak of because the beach lies behind a tropical reef.

For Susan and me, paradise has short beaches lined with coarse sand that lie between rocky, foreboding headlands; you can’t see into the water because of a perilous swell whipped up by angry winds, and even if you could see beneath the surface, the bottom would be covered with huge swathes of seaweed that harboured platoons of uncanny marine creatures. The water would be cold; the hinterland would be rugged and menacing, and there would be a lighthouse at the end of the point.

If your idea of paradise is more like our idea of paradise, then you should visit Astuarias too. The coast of Asturias reminded us of rugged stretches of our “spiritual home” on the South coast of New South Wales in Australia. In Asturias, we felt both at home and out of our element; it was both strange and familiar; it was both snug and remote; it raised us up into the sky, and it cast us down into the valleys.

As we said goodbye to Bibao, we had brief breakfast at a café across the road and then went to Ribera markets for some supplies. The markets turned out to be inside the train station, which was not at all obvious from the information we had at hand. The deli stalls were full of temptations that we were not able to resist, including fresh bocarones and monstrously large green olives.

After stocking up for our road trip into Asturias, Susie went to a fashion outlet called Skunkfunk and bought two dresses to suit the warmer weather that lay ahead of us. We then stopped at the wine and cheese shop and bought a nice bottle of red to facilitate a soft landing in Cudillero. We collected our luggage and settled up at the Hotel Jardines. Our next task was to pick up a hire car at the train station for our “road trip” west across the northern coast of Spain, which is spanned by the provinces of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. This presented a series of challenges, both linguistic and practical.

At the Europcar Office in the train station, we managed to get through the hire-car formalities in Spanish and we were told that our vehicle had been “upgraded”. Waiting in the parking lot was a near-new Renault Megane diesel. We had to work out a few basics before we pulled out of the station. How do you start it without a key? How do you put it into reverse? And will our Australian GPS device connect to the satellites over Spain and allow us to use the road maps of Iberia that we downloaded in Sydney?

In due course, everything fell into place. What remained was to adjust to the left-hand drive vehicle. Oddly, there is almost no practical information about this. If driving were a purely mental exercise, changing from one system to another would be no big deal. Driving is, however, an embodied activity, and not simply because you must use your hands and feet to do it. For an experienced driver, the car is an extension of one’s body; thus it takes time to adjust to the altered phenomenology of driving.

The foot pedals require no adjustment: the clutch, accelerator and brake are each where your feet expect to find them. The indicator and windscreen washer controls on the steering column are reversed, but this was nothing new to us, as we own a small Ford in Australia which uses the European configuration. This means that we are almost certain to switch on the windscreen wipers when we turn a corner no matter what we are driving. The right-hand gear shift requires a lot of adjustment; I felt like a beginner driver again. My clutch-foot is programmed to work with the arm on the same side of my body. In a left-hand drive vehicle, changing gears requires co-ordination across the body from left foot to right arm.

The most obvious objective effect of the switch was that I strayed too close to the right hand verge. I therefore had to consciously override this tendency with some feedback from Susan, such as “LOOK OUT—YOU’RE TOO CLOSE TO THE EDGE!” or perhaps the odd muffled scream or sudden sideways flinch. Because good driving is mostly unconscious, the more you have to think about it, the less seamless is the fusion of body and machine. This was the most obvious subjective effect of the switch: a feeling of clumsiness that arises from having to think about processes that are normally, for the most part, automated.

After a few days of driving I was changing gears comfortably, but it always helped to have Susie remind me to enter roundabouts by turning right and not left. Because most of the driving was on freeways, I did not have to contend with the complicated scenarios that characterise city driving, and freeways are signposted using a semiotic that transcends linguistic barriers.

The phenomenological adjustments were complicated by another factor, however: our drive west from Bilbao undertaken mostly in extremely heavy rain. Our first impressions of Asturias were thus distinctly Impressionistic—that is, we glimpsed it first through patterns daubed by heavy rain on the windshield.  Furthermore, the freeways in Asturias are frequently perched atop concrete columns that plunge hundreds of meters into the valleys and gorges below. Susan called them ‘skyways’. So our initiation on the Iberian roads was completed by way of a precipitous, aerial baptism.

Apart from the occasional hallucination that we were careening off a roundabout at an impossible tangent, our TomTom (GPS navigation device) performed superbly. The car was excellent, too, so I was grateful for the free upgrade.

We took a chance by pulling off the highway at Llanes. We had no idea of the layout of the town, and we were still trapped in heavy rain. As luck would have it, we found a legal parking space outside a hotel and, following an intuition, Susie snooped around a corner and found one of the “timeliest” restaurants of our journey. It had a view of a small rocky inlet, and offered an affordable menu del dia that included a bottle of cold, red wine and fresh coffee. Susie needed the former to recover from my clumsy driving, and I needed the latter to disperse the mental fog of a long-distance haul. There was only one other couple in the restaurant—because who in their right mind would be out on a day like this? I ordered a kind of rice soup flavoured with seafood. It was rather good. Susie ordered pasta, which was not so good. I can’t remember what the main course was, but we were unable to finish it. I was brought up to never, ever waste food. (“Just think of all the starving kids in India”, my parent always used to say, to shame us into finishing.) I am therefore pretty adept at stashing away huge servings. But Spanish restaurants have got us beat. The servings are massive.

We drove from Llanes to our destination through “skyways” that got ever more precipitous, and through rain that got ever more horizontal. Although I have named our destination as Cudillero, this is not entirely accurate. Cudillero is the nearest seaside town. Our accommodation was actually located on the inland side of the highway, in a tiny village called Castañedo that lies in the hinterland near another small village called San Martin de Luiña.

In order to reach Castañedo, we wound our way down from the giddy heights of a “skyway” into the depths of quiet valley; and when we finally located the tiny village, we were greeted by our host, Yolanda, who made us feel very welcome. By 7 p.m. we had settled in and, since the rain was still bucketing down, we decided to stay in for the evening and watch the light fade over the skyway high above the valley.

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